Meeting date: Thursday, June 3, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 03 June 2021
Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Education, Decision Time
First Minister’s Question Time
Good afternoon. I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask that members take care to observe those measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please use the aisles and walkways to access your seat and when moving around the chamber.
Scottish Qualifications Authority
Does the First Minister have full confidence in the Scottish Qualifications Authority?
Yes, I do. On this year’s qualifications, it is important that I and the Government recognise, first of all, that this is a really anxious and difficult time for pupils—and, indeed, their parents—across the country. It is really important that we and the SQA continue to listen. We are doing our utmost to continue to deliver fair grades in what are very difficult circumstances.
If there are further questions on the issue today, I will try to answer them all as clearly as possible, because scrutiny and understanding are important. However, I will try to stay away from partisan politics, not least because many of the arrangements that we are putting in place are very similar to those that are being put in place in England and in Wales under Governments of different parties. That reflects the fact that this is a difficult situation.
In setting that important context as we go—as I am sure that we will—into the detail, I can perhaps do no better than quote Jim Thewliss, the general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, who said:
“The system that replaced the exams was never going to be perfect but all the way along no one has come up with a better way of doing it than the alternative certification model.”
This is a difficult set of circumstances, but the Government continues to do all that we can to support pupils in these difficult times. That approach will very much continue.
The First Minister said that she has full confidence in the Scottish Qualifications Authority. Her answer will not be shared by the tens of thousands of pupils and parents across Scotland who were so badly let down by the SQA and its exam grade disaster last year. It will also not be shared by the thousands more who are facing what looks like another year of grades chaos and confusion.
Last night, Leon Cameron of Glasgow Youth Council said:
“We are extremely angry at the people with authority—the Scottish Government, the SQA—that they keep saying that everything is ok, when it is not. They are clearly in denial over this issue.”
“We have been put through hell.”
The First Minister said that she would answer all questions on the issue clearly. Does she agree with Leon Cameron that her Government and the SQA are in denial?
I do not agree with that. It is my duty to persuade young people and their parents across the country that although no Government can take away all the impacts on our young people of a global pandemic, this Government—working with teachers, local authorities, representatives of pupils and parents and, of course, the SQA—is doing everything that we can, in a highly challenging set of circumstances, to deliver fairness for pupils. That work will continue.
The alternative certification model was developed by the national qualifications group, which brought together teacher representatives, parents and pupils. We are often asked, rightly, to listen to teachers. The Educational Institute of Scotland said that the model gives pupils
“the best opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned.”
I and the Government will continue to listen to young people. That is why, for example, the SQA has put in place an appeals process that gives every young person a direct right of appeal, free of charge.
There have been some very difficult decisions to take—for example, on whether to have a no-detriment appeal system or a symmetrical appeal system. The SQA has proposed a symmetrical system, which is the same as in England and Wales.
We are listening carefully to the concern that has been raised about the specific grounds of appeal and the fact that there is no ground for appeal that takes account of exceptional personal circumstances. The reason for that is that we do not think that a young person who has suffered exceptional circumstances should have to rely on an appeal. That is why an exceptional circumstances arrangement has been built into the model. Therefore, if somebody—because of, for example, a bereavement—cannot put forward assessment by the date in June, they will have a window of time until September to do so.
We continue to work to take account of the concerns and to put in place the best possible arrangements in a highly imperfect set of circumstances. I take very seriously the responsibility that we have as a Government to listen, on an on-going basis, to young people. For example, this year, one of the key changes from last year’s unacceptable situation is that grades will be based on teacher judgment, informed by the work of pupils, not on algorithms, statistical models or historical performance of schools. Important changes have been made, and we continue to work hard with everyone in the education system to make sure that concerns are properly addressed.
So the First Minister will not agree with young people. Instead, she will—in her words—try to explain to them and “persuade” them that they are wrong. That is absolutely appalling from a First Minister who is unwilling to listen to criticisms of her Government and its handling of this fiasco from the young people who have been most affected.
Last summer, it took a week before the Scottish National Party finally admitted that its grading system was broken and made a U-turn. This year’s children should not have to go through the same issues all over again. Swinney is out, Somerville is in, but it is the same old shambles. The SNP Government needs to learn from its mistakes but, instead, it is determined just to repeat them.
On the threat of downgrading, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland has said that it is
“an unnecessary and disempowering barrier to young people”.
That concern will be echoed in homes and classrooms right across Scotland. Is the First Minister seriously going to defend an appeal system that risks pupils receiving lower grades and which demands that they gamble on their future?
What is appalling is for Douglas Ross to mischaracterise what I have said. I did not say that the Government’s job was to persuade young people that they were wrong; I said that it is the Government’s job to engage with young people and—yes—to seek to persuade them that the arrangements that are in place are the right ones, but to listen as we go.
For example, it is because we have listened to young people that a fundamentally different system is in place this year—one that is based not on algorithms but on teacher judgment, informed by the attainment of young people and the work that they have done.
We are often challenged to listen more to teachers. According to the EIS,
“Although some schools have made use of SQA assessment instruments, teachers are able to draw on whatever evidence they regard as valid in determining grades ... unlike ... exams, the evidence does not need to be produced in a one-off event”.
That is a critical point, as is the fact that the judgment of teachers cannot be challenged by the SQA.
We have also given young people the direct right of appeal, free of any cost, which was also called for.
I have three points to make on the important issue of whether to have a no-detriment system, in which appeals can only be upgraded, not downgraded, or a symmetrical system. First, the symmetrical system is one that ensures that the attainment of pupils is central to the process, which is the fairest way of proceeding. That is not new—it is the approach that has been taken in past years. Douglas Ross says that it is indefensible, but exactly the same approach has been taken by the UK Government for the English system. That is another important point.
A point that is perhaps more important for pupils is the fact that past experience shows us that the downgrading of grades is exceptionally rare. In 2019, out of more than 11,000 appeals, only two resulted in downgrading. In 2018, when there were 13,000 appeals, seven resulted in downgrading. It is an exceptional occurrence. The approach ensures that we have a system that, from start to finish, is intended to focus on the actual attainment of pupils.
Of course, the appeals system should be used only in exceptional circumstances—not because we want to put pupils off using it, but because we want to get the grades right the first time. That is why the judgment of teachers at the centre of this is so important.
This year has been difficult for everyone, but especially for young people. What have this Government and the SQA done for them over the past 15 months? We have exams replaced by exams and an appeals process that is late and flawed. No lessons have been learned, and there is no understanding and no fairness. Pupils have been dismayed, and they have been punished for being ambitious. Teachers are scunnered and their concerns are being ignored. Parents are furious with this Government for not listening to them.
Will the First Minister do the right thing, concede that she has got this badly wrong and guarantee that no pupil who appeals will be downgraded? No matter how rare she says that is, it will be a risk for young people if they appeal. Once she does that and finally agrees that no pupil who appeals will be downgraded, will she start to fix the deeper problems in Scottish education, beginning by replacing the SQA?
On wider reform of education including potential reform of the SQA, I note that the Parliament will debate those issues this afternoon, and the education secretary will say more about all of that when that debate happens later.
We will continue to listen to young people, teachers and parents and continue to address concerns as far as we can. This is—I am afraid that this is inescapable—a highly imperfect situation because we are in the midst of a global pandemic that has made exams impossible, so we have to put in place an alternative. As Jim Thewliss, whom I quoted earlier, said, no alternative is going to be perfect, but nobody has suggested a better one than this.
I recognise that we have different education systems, but all the things that Douglas Ross says are fundamentally wrong here are actually, by and large, exactly the same arrangements that are being put in place in England and Wales under Governments of different parties. That reflects the fact that we are all trying to do our best for young people in very difficult circumstances.
We have learned lessons from last year. Teacher judgment has replaced last year’s algorithm approach, which was fundamentally flawed. We have recognised that there must be a much more accessible appeals system, but also that at its heart must be the attainment of pupils.
This approach has not been easy for anybody, and particularly not for young people. Of all the impacts of the pandemic that I wish I could take away, the impact on our young people is very near the top, if not at the top, of the list. We are all doing the best that we can, and we will continue to engage with young people as we seek to do that.
Covid-19 (Government Response)
Last week, we heard damning evidence from Dominic Cummings about the United Kingdom Government’s response to Covid-19. He painted a picture of chaos and confusion, poor preparation and almost criminal levels of negligence that led to avoidable deaths. He outlined a series of failures—a lack of personal protective equipment, insufficient testing, Covid-positive patients being sent into care homes, and inconsistent and delayed decision making. At First Minister’s questions last week, the First Minister was rightly critical of the chaos that Dominic Cummings described, but does she accept that many of the same decisions were made in Scotland by the First Minister and the Scottish Government?
I have always accepted that we made mistakes in the handling of the pandemic. I have never tried to shy away from that. I made my point last week not to point the finger at any politician but to make the general point that one of the lessons that all of us in decision-making positions should have learned over the past period—more than a year, now—is that taking quick decisions is really important. That applies to me just as much as it does to anyone else. We have sought to learn lessons as we go and as our understanding and knowledge about the virus have developed, and we have candidly said that we perhaps made mistakes in how we did things in the early part of the pandemic. I have been candid about that.
There will be, as is right and proper, a process of full and robust scrutiny of that, both in the interest of accountability, which is important, and in the interest of learning lessons for the future, because we need to make sure that the lessons of the pandemic are there for future generations—hopefully, none of us will have to deal with another pandemic—to use. All of these things are important and I have not and will not shy away from the responsibility that I bear for every aspect of the handling of the pandemic.
I welcome the First Minister’s response and I recognise what she says about the importance of making good decisions quickly.
Today, we are publishing a timeline comparison that shows that, at key moments and on the big decisions, the UK and Scottish Governments were in lockstep. It is important to stress that none of that was the fault of our hard-working national health service and care staff. What we are questioning is the Scottish Government’s decision making.
Let us look at some of those specific decisions. In early March 2020, both Governments were talking about a herd immunity strategy. On 12 March, 47,000 fans attended a European football match in Glasgow; that same day, the Scottish Government said that stopping mass gatherings was not the best way to contain the virus—11 days later, they were made illegal by both Governments. Untested and Covid-positive patients were being sent into care homes. The UK Government announced routine testing on 15 April; the Scottish Government waited until 21 April. The result was one in 10 of our care home residents in Scotland losing their life to Covid—that was not a “protective ring”. That was 3,774 deaths—a third of the total. Does the First Minister agree that those decisions were made in Scotland by the First Minister and the Scottish Government?
I am glad for Anas Sarwar that he has the time to do timelines. There is nothing that he has just told me that I do not know, and there is nothing that I have sought to shy away from. I lived through that period as the lead decision maker in the Scottish Government. I take responsibility for all the decisions and I have never tried to shy away from that. I will live with the consequences of those decisions for as long as I live, and those decisions will be subject to serious scrutiny. That is right and proper.
We sought, all along, to do the right thing, based on the knowledge and the understanding that we had. In the light of developing knowledge, if we could turn the clock back, we would do some of these things differently. In addition, as I have said all along, we will have made straightforward mistakes, and I will forever regret any mistakes that we made.
I do not know what point Anas Sarwar is seeking to prove. I have taken responsibility and will continue to take responsibility. Every single day of the pandemic, I have done my level best to get the decisions right.
If I could turn the clock back, would we go into lockdown earlier than we did? Yes, I think that we would. We moved on mass gatherings and we announced the position on schools slightly before the UK Government did. When we look at the different pandemic curves, we see that, although we went into lockdown on the same day as the rest of the UK, it was slightly ahead of the pandemic curve for Scotland.
If I could turn the clock back, there are many things that I would love to have the opportunity to do differently. Of course, the irony is that many of the same people who criticised me—perfectly legitimately—for not acting quickly enough or for not being cautious enough at an earlier stage often criticise me now for being too cautious and going too slowly in lifting lockdown restrictions. That is what comes with the responsibilities of this job. I am not complaining about that, but this is not an easy situation for anybody to be in. I will continue, as I have done from day 1, to take the best decisions that I can, and I will never shy away from the responsibility for that.
I am not sure why the First Minister is critical of our development of a timeline. I would hope, given the scale of the civil service, that there would be a Scottish Government timeline of decision making, so that we can learn from and not repeat mistakes.
Large events matter. On the day that we had 47,000 fans in Glasgow, Ireland was announcing an end to large gatherings. Herd immunity matters, because New Zealand took a very different approach and had very different outcomes. A University of Edinburgh study has shown that, if Scotland had acted earlier, we could have prevented 2,000 Covid deaths. Those are important points that we should be bringing to the chamber and asking Scotland’s Government to respond to.
I gave three examples of decisions that were made in Scotland, on strategy, mass gatherings and care homes. I could have given more, such as a failure to have adequate PPE supplies, a failure to adequately ramp up testing, a failure to introduce strict testing and quarantine at our airports, and ineffective contact tracing.
NHS and social care staff, and the Scottish people, deserve more than just rhetoric—they deserve answers. They deserve more than being told that the Government cares—they deserve answers. We cannot allow Scottish exceptionalism to stop us from learning critical lessons. It is always easier to focus on failures elsewhere.
We must learn from mistakes here, at home. We do not need to wait for the UK Government. Work can begin right now to establish a judge-led, Scotland-specific public inquiry into the decisions that were made in Scotland. Surely, after everything that she has just said in her answers, the First Minister agrees with that.
People can make up their own minds whether what they hear from me is an inability to face up to mistakes or Scottish exceptionalism. What people hear from me is a candid admission that, like many other Governments across the world, we have not got everything right, and they hear a willingness and a desire to face up to that and to learn from it.
I could paper the walls with timelines, but my focus now as First Minister is on delivering the vaccination programme to keep people safe in future and on ensuring that we take the right decisions, although we are criticised by many for being too cautious and too slow, to keep people safe because we could be at the start of a third wave of the virus. That is my responsibility as First Minister. Of course we have lessons to learn—I have never said otherwise. Perhaps Anas Sarwar is saying that, if he had been standing here back then, he would have got everything right. Who knows? Perhaps he would have done, but I suspect that, like everyone else, he would have grappled with those difficult decisions.
I have given a commitment to a judge-led public inquiry. That commitment stands. I want to see the inquiry up and running before the end of this year. The UK Government has announced plans for a public inquiry and has asked for four-nations discussion about its remit and about where there might be overlaps. I usually get encouraged by Labour members to take part in constructive four-nations discussions. We have agreed to do that. The commitment to a public inquiry is there and is firm and strong. I think that I was the first of the UK First Ministers to make that commitment.
I have led the country to the best of my ability—far from perfectly—through the pandemic. I, as much as anyone, want to ensure that we learn the right lessons. It is very easy when you are not the one taking the decisions and when you have the benefit of hindsight—if I was in opposition, I would no doubt do the same—to tell us what we should have done. When you are taking decisions in the moment, you have to act on the basis of the best information and advice that you have. That is what we have done. We will learn lessons. We will be judged. We have just been judged on our leadership of this so far in the election. We will be judged with full scrutiny, but my focus now is on continuing to lead the country as best I can through an on-going pandemic.
I am very eager that we involve as many members as possible in First Minister’s questions. I would be grateful for succinct questions and responses.
Today the First Minister will attend the United Kingdom recovery summit. I welcome the fact that she will ask for the furlough scheme to be extended. That is essential for Scottish workers, but much more needs to be done.
The Trades Union Congress this week published analysis of public spending on the green recovery and on job creation in G7 countries. Predictably, the UK is far behind, with Germany investing three times more per person and France four times more. Failure to invest in a green recovery would be a disaster for our planet and for our economy as businesses and workers will be held back by Tory austerity while our European neighbours race ahead.
Yesterday, the Parliament voted in favour of my call for a major increase in public investment in Scotland and across the UK to secure a green economic recovery. Will the First Minister assure us that she will make that demand at the recovery summit today?
I will. In our use of the Scottish Government’s resources, we are maximising our investment in the actions that are needed to support a green recovery and to transition to net zero. In the previous session of Parliament, we established the Scottish National Investment Bank, which takes that transition as its primary mission. We should continue to be challenged to do everything that we can with the powers, responsibilities and resources that we have.
It is not my choice, but there is no doubt that much of what we can do is determined by the spending decisions of the UK Government. This afternoon, as well as asking for public health to be kept to the fore and for furlough to be extended for as long as necessary, I will also ask for commitments on public spending so that we have certainty and clarity about future public spending and clarity that we will not see austerity cuts imposed by the UK Government. That is important for green recovery, and for many other reasons.
I share the doubt that the UK Government will deliver, but this issue could not be more important. I hope that the First Minister will keep demanding the investment that we need, working in partnership with the other devolved countries, just as the Scottish Government did to secure an extension to the furlough last year.
However, we can still do more here in Scotland, with the powers that we have, to secure a green recovery. Look at the industry that I come from, as noted in my entry in the register of members’ interests. Scotland could be a world leader in marine renewable energy, but the industry was undermined by the Tory Government when it scrapped essential tariff support in 2015. The Scottish Government has long committed to establishing a public energy company, which could provide tidal energy with the demand that it needs—
Tidal energy technology was developed in Scotland. We are the world experts in it but, if we do not act now, we will lose that industry to other countries. When will the First Minister deliver a public energy company?
There are a range of different ways in which we will support the vast renewable energy potential that Scotland has, and which Lorna Slater is absolutely right to point out. Indeed, I hope that those issues will feature in the discussions that she and I will have about the co-operation between our parties over the course of this parliamentary session.
Scotland is a world leader in renewable energy. However, we need to do much more in terms of generating energy and ensuring that we properly seize the economic benefits that come from that. Candidly speaking, we have not done well enough in that area. There is a lot of work to be done here, and we are determined to get on with it as we lead up to the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—and then move beyond that. I very much look forward to working with the Greens—and, indeed, with others across the chamber—to ensure that Scotland continues to lead the world in renewable energy and in the wider transition to net zero.
European Union Settlement Scheme
I congratulate you on your new role, Presiding Officer.
To ask the First Minister what engagement the Scottish Government has had with the United Kingdom Government regarding the extension of the deadline for application to the EU settlement scheme. (S6F-00048)
I take this opportunity to welcome Siobhian Brown to the chamber and congratulate her on her first question.
We have been very consistent in calling for the European Union settlement scheme to be replaced by a declaratory system, which would alleviate the risks of EU citizens becoming unlawfully resident here. In my view, EU citizens simply should not have to apply to retain their rights.
Due to the pandemic, many people have struggled to obtain identity documents or retrieve required evidence. We know that many have yet to apply to the scheme, and there is also a backlog in processing applications.
We will continue to do all that we can to support EU citizens. The Minister for Culture, Europe and International Development has already raised the issue with the UK Government on more than one occasion. However, let me put this simply: the UK Government has, I hope, learned the lessons of the Windrush scandal, and it must make sure that it does everything that it can to avoid repeating that scandal. Part of that must involve extending the 30 June deadline.
There are grave concerns that some EU citizens, such as the elderly, the infirm and children in care and foster homes, will fail to apply for settled status by the deadline of 30 June, either because they are incapable of doing so or because their guardians are unaware of the deadline.
How has the Scottish Government, together with local authorities, worked with local care homes and children’s care services to prevent any miscarriages of natural justice over the issue, especially given the life-changing consequences that missing the deadline could have?
That is an important question, and the issue has the potential to impact on the lives of many people across the country. The Government has worked very closely with local authorities and care providers to increase awareness of the settlement scheme. That has included funding a caseworker at the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to assist vulnerable people who have contacted local authorities. There has been a particular focus on identifying and supporting looked-after children. In addition, Citizens Advice Scotland has written to care homes to alert them to the upcoming deadline. The stay in Scotland marketing campaign has also restarted. As well as using social media, it uses radio and local press to reach people who might not be online.
We will provide support and information, but it is vital that we also continue to press the UK Government to make the important changes to the scheme that are needed to safeguard the rights of EU citizens here.
Schools (Maximum Class Sizes)
To ask the First Minister what steps the Scottish Government is taking to ensure there are sufficient resources in place to prevent schools exceeding its maximum class size limits during the next academic year, in light of reports that a number of schools are currently exceeding these limits. (S6F-00058)
We are determined to do everything that we can to ensure that schools have the resources that they need, but it is important first to note that the law is clear. Other than in very specific circumstances, class sizes are mandatory and must be adhered to.
On resources, last year, teacher numbers increased for the fifth year in a row, and there are now more teachers than there have been at any time since 2008. The ratio of pupils to teachers is at its lowest since 2010.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have provided more than £200 million to councils to support the recruitment of 1,400 additional teachers and more than 200 support staff. During the first 100 days of the current parliamentary session, we will fund councils to increase teacher numbers by a further 1,000. That is part of our commitment to 3,500 additional teachers and classroom assistants being brought in during the parliamentary session, and it is over and above those who have been recruited during the pandemic so far.
I thank the First Minister for her answer, but I want to talk about reality, not ratios. While the First Minister seeks to manipulate the figures by including those whose main job is to support classroom teachers, schools across the country are being left with no choice but to cram extra young people into classrooms, which goes against everything that the Scottish National Party used to promise. How does the First Minister explain reports that suggest that numerous schools have more than 30 primary school children in a class at a time while the attainment gap widens?
With qualified teachers across Scotland looking for teaching posts, why will the First Minister not move faster in reversing teaching cuts and guarantee that this will be the final year in which we see our young people being so badly let down?
Teacher numbers have increased for five years in a row, and we are committed to continuing to increase teacher numbers.
I was talking about teachers and classroom assistants in terms of the number that we are recruiting, but my point about class sizes is clear: class sizes are mandatory. Primary 1 to primary 3 class sizes are set in statute, and class sizes for primary 4 to primary 7, including composite classes, are part of the terms and conditions of the Scottish Negotiating Committee for Teachers. Councils therefore have a duty—a legal duty, in many cases—to make sure that those limits are adhered to.
We have often worked hard, in past years, to deliver that in the face of the austerity cuts that have been imposed on the Government by the Conservatives at Westminster. We will continue to work hard to make sure that there are more teachers in our schools and that we support councils to deliver the education that children and their parents want and deserve.
Forced Adoption Apology
To ask the First Minister whether the Scottish Government will consider issuing a formal apology to the historical victims of forced adoption. (S6F-00067)
Yes, we will consider that. Like everybody else, I feel deep sadness that, in the past, women were forced to give their children up for adoption because of prevailing moral and social attitudes. Major shifts have occurred in adoption policy and practice, ensuring that the focus is now placed on providing secure and permanent relationships for some of our most undersupported children.
We are engaging with campaigners who are calling for an apology, so that we can better understand their experiences and consider the issue more fully. I give my commitment that we will continue to do that.
In recent years, we have come a long way in improving outcomes for looked-after children and young people, but I know that there is still much more to do. That is why I and the Government have committed to implementing the findings of the promise to ensure that all looked-after children will grow up safe, happy and loved.
My constituent Marion McMillan was one of 60,000 Scottish mothers who were compelled to give up a baby for adoption simply because they were unmarried. What they went through was horrific, and many of them have experienced a lifetime of grief and pain. Marion has worked with victims of forced adoption from around the world, has reunited mothers with children and has given evidence that helped to secure the world’s first Government apology for forced adoption, in Australia in 2013. However, there has never been a formal apology for the injustice of forced adoption here, in Scotland and the UK.
Marion is now in her 70s and is terminally ill. Her dying wish is that the victims in Scotland receive the apology that they deserve and that it happen soon. I therefore urge the First Minister to take swift action to confront this shameful chapter in Scotland’s history and, as soon as possible, deliver our formal statement to Parliament, issuing a Government apology for forced adoptions on behalf of our entire nation.
Yes, I give that commitment. I take the matter really seriously. I hope that Neil Bibby will accept—I am sure that he will—that it is important, when we do something like this, that we get it right and listen to the people who are, understandably, calling for an apology. I, too, have read about Marion McMillan’s experience, and it is absolutely heartbreaking. It is not isolated and unique—that happened to too many women back in days when attitudes were very different from those that prevail today. I do not know all the detail, but I know that in the Republic of Ireland, for example, there was a concern that work around the issue did not deliver what campaigners had been calling for. Therefore, it is really important that we understand what an apology would seek to cover and how it can be framed in a way that gives the campaigners the closure—if that is an appropriate word—that they are looking for. I am very committed to considering the matter properly and fully and to doing so quickly but in a way that delivers what the campaigners feel is important to them.
Police Officers (Burn-out)
To ask the First Minister what the Scottish Government’s response is to a recent survey stating that 29 per cent of police officers are experiencing moderate burn-out, and a further 16 per cent are enduring high levels. (S6F-00059)
I appreciate—as, I am sure, we all do—the hard work and dedication of our police officers and police support staff at all times, but especially throughout the pandemic. I support the initiatives that are being undertaken by the chief constable to ensure that officers and staff are physically and mentally healthy. That includes, for example, the introduction of wellbeing champions and a wellbeing hub to raise awareness of the support that is available. In addition, Police Scotland was one of the first police services in the United Kingdom to implement mental health and suicide intervention training for all officers. Officers and staff are doing an excellent job in difficult circumstances, and I welcome the fact that Police Scotland provides its workforce with a range of services to help them to look after their mental and physical health.
When we highlighted devastating research 18 months ago, ministers told us that they were “very satisfied” with the mental health support that was available for officers. Now, expert researchers have again concluded that many front-line officers are suffering from chronic stress associated with their circumstances at work. Police Scotland co-sponsored that long-term research, but I have learned that support was withdrawn because the research programme was keen to understand the impact of Covid on the workforce. Police Scotland said that it was “too soon” and withdrew support. Does the First Minister accept that Scotland’s police officers have been badly let down and that they do not have the mental health support that they obviously need?
The chief constable and the Government have a duty to listen and respond, and we take that duty very seriously. Liam McArthur talks about 18 months ago. That, of course, predates Covid, which has exacerbated the stress, anxiety and trauma of many of our public service workers, including the police and their support staff. A range of support services are in place, and I mentioned some of them in my initial answer. It is really important that the chief constable—this is a matter for the chief constable, first and foremost—continues to listen to the experiences of the police service and delivers that support to make sure that, in the very challenging work that they do, our police officers have support to keep themselves mentally and physically healthy. That work will continue and I fully support the efforts that the chief constable is undertaking.
We move to supplementary questions.
Ferry Services (Stornoway to Ullapool)
Last weekend saw major disruption to haulage—[Inaudible.]—technical issue with MV Hebridean Isles led to a backlog of lorries, many of which contained perishable goods and had to be left behind. Although the return of MV Loch Seaforth to the route should help, the incident raises wider concerns about what will happen when the next CalMac Ferries vessel either goes into dry dock or suffers a similar breakdown to the one that has seen MV Loch Seaforth out of action for seven weeks. Given all that, will the Scottish Government consider the charter of a freight vessel for the Stornoway to Ullapool route?
First, I absolutely recognise and understand communities’ frustration at that and other recent disruption and the impact that it has had. In relation to the issue with the MV Hebridean Isles, I understand that all goods were shipped early on Saturday morning on the MV Isle of Lewis. I can also update the chamber that the MV Loch Seaforth returned to service on 31 May and that, as of today, all vessels are back in position. The Minister for Transport has met the constituency member, other MSPs and other stakeholders to hear concerns and he has agreed to continue regular dialogue. We are actively exploring opportunities for chartering additional tonnage. In addition, we have confirmed new investment in ports and vessels to support and improve Scotland’s ferry services over the next five years as part of our infrastructure investment plan.
Police Officers (Body-worn Cameras)
This week, Chief Superintendent Matt Richards said that a marked increase in the use of body-worn cameras by police officers will result in a “spike in guilty pleas” and reduce pressure on our much backlogged criminal courts. However, he warned that “financial and structural constraints” seem to have prevented the roll-out of the cameras thus far. Does the First Minister agree with that assessment of the situation? Are there any imminent plans to increase police protection and speed up the justice process by heeding the chief superintendent’s recommendation?
We will continue to discuss those matters with the chief constable. I certainly welcome Police Scotland’s on-going work to consider how new or improved technologies can be harnessed to further strengthen its ability to keep the population safe. We will continue to support that, but we will also consider the implications for police officers. It is important that we take the time to discuss and consider all the issues fully.
Covid-19 Vaccine (Minority Groups)
I congratulate you on your new role, Presiding Officer.
With the spread of the new variant of Covid-19, the need to address low uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine among particular ethnic groups is crucial, especially for those who might be at higher risk. To do so, the programme must be accessible. Therefore, in which languages is information about the vaccine programme available in translation, and what targeted action is being taken to reach diverse minority groups in our communities?
First, I welcome Foysol Choudhury to the Parliament. I very much agree with him about the importance of the accessibility of the vaccine programme. I will write to him personally—or I will ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care to do so—to give detail of the various approaches that are being taken to ensure high uptake among our minority ethnic communities, which include materials being made available in different languages.
I represent a constituency with a very high proportion of ethnic minorities living in it and where there has been a significant outbreak of Covid in recent weeks. Important work has been done there around surge testing and particularly around approaches to improving uptake of the vaccine—for example, there is a vaccine clinic based inside Glasgow central mosque. We can take learning from that to apply to other parts of the country.
Overall, uptake of the vaccine is extremely good at the moment, but we need to ensure that the national picture is fully reflected in all our communities, because the vaccine really is the most important thing that we can do now to guard against the virus and to get the country back to normality. Taking today’s figures into account, more than 60 per cent of the total population in Scotland—60.2 per cent—has had a first dose of the vaccine and, obviously, we are now speeding up the administration of second doses.
Foysol Choudhury has made important points that we will continue to take into account.
Covid-19 Delta Variant (NHS Dumfries and Galloway)
What is the First Minister’s response to the eight cases of Covid-19 B.1.617.2, or delta, variant—formerly known as the Indian variant—that have been identified in the NHS Dumfries and Galloway area, given that the variant has been described as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization?
The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has told me that he spoke to NHS Dumfries and Galloway yesterday.
Unfortunately, new variants of the virus will occur, but it is really important that we take the same basic steps to contain variants as we have taken to contain the virus all along. We now think that the delta variant represents well over half of all new cases in Scotland, so we will see the same situation in many parts of the country, including of course the NHS Dumfries and Galloway area. However, the way that we stop the virus spreading is the same for every variant. It involves all the basic measures that we know about, such as hand hygiene, wearing face coverings, distancing and making sure that we all follow the guidance that is in place. Of course, it is also about testing regularly—everybody can now access lateral flow tests—and people coming forward for vaccination as soon as they are invited to do so. The best protection that any of us can have against this virus is to have two doses of the vaccine.
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Waiting Times)
The latest figures for waiting times for child and adolescent mental health services are deeply disturbing. In NHS Borders, the average wait for CAMHS is 31 weeks, and only 48 per cent of young people are treated within the 18-week target; in NHS Lothian, the target was missed by more than a third. The figures also show that one in five children are still being completely turned away from CAMHS.
Three years ago, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport described the present system of rejecting referrals as “completely unacceptable”, yet there has been no improvement. When will the First Minister and her Government get a grip of the children’s mental health treatment crisis in Scotland?
I welcome Craig Hoy to the Parliament.
I will turn to waiting times for mental health services for children and adolescents and to rejected referrals in reverse order. The Scottish Government accepted all the recommendations in the 2018 audit of rejected referrals, and we are working to deliver on all of them. That work includes asking Public Health Scotland to work with health boards to develop a new patient-level data set, so that we understand not just the overall numbers but the reason for rejected referrals. The service standard makes it clear what should happen if a particular referral does not require specialist treatment. Work is rightly on-going to tackle rejected referrals.
In summary, our approach to waiting times more generally is two-fold: first, to invest more into CAMHS; secondly, to redesign the service so that much greater support provision is in place for young people in communities so that, hopefully, they do not then require specialist services. Given that I have limited time now, I am happy to ask the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care to provide more detail of all that. Those important strands of work are being taken forward with urgency.
Euro 2020 Fan Zone (Covid-19 Tests)
Can the First Minister say whether attendees at the Euro 2020 fan zone in Glasgow will require testing for Covid-19 ahead of entry, given the conflicting information that the Scottish Government and the organisers of Glasgow Life provided?
Again, I will write to Pam Duncan-Glancy and make the information about the arrangements that are in place available to the whole chamber. Those arrangements are still under consideration to ensure that any fan zone proceeds safely with all the correct mitigations in place.
On the issue of testing, I repeat that our advice to the whole population—not just people who attend a particular event—is for people to order lateral flow device tests for free through the NHS inform website and test themselves twice a week so that it can be identified whether they have the virus without symptoms. If the LFD test is positive, people can go for a confirmatory polymerase chain reaction test, which helps us break the chain of transmission. It is really important to get that message across to the public at large, not simply in relation to particular attendances at particular events.
Just Transition (Oil and Gas Sector)
Scottish communities are, to this day, paying the price of the scorched earth policy that Thatcher and her hypocritical Scots Tories inflicted on Scottish industries in the 1980s. What assurances can the First Minister provide to my constituents who work in the oil and gas sector that no one will be left behind as we make a necessary and just transition to renewable energy?
I take the opportunity to welcome my good friend Jackie Dunbar to the chamber. She has just demonstrated in that question what a powerful contribution she will make here—I am not sure that the Tories will like it, but I think that most of the rest of us will.
The issue is really important. I grew up in Ayrshire in the 1970s and 1980s and saw first-hand the impact when a government did not care about protecting individuals and communities from the impact of economic transformations. We must not make that mistake again. Failing to plan for the transition to net zero is not an option, which is why we are working with trade unions, businesses and communities to develop just transition plans to ensure that our approach is a fair one.
That commitment to just transition is vital: I have already appointed our first just transition minister, and we will implement the recommendations of the just transition commission and maintain that commission to advise us throughout this session of the Parliament. I believe that a majority in the Parliament is committed to that transition to net zero; I also hope that a majority is committed to making that transition fairly, because that is in the interest of every individual and community across our country.
Covid-19 Quarantine (Overseas Energy Workers)
In February, I asked the First Minister when there would be a review into the issue of oil and gas worker quarantine, to avoid them spending, in some cases, 10 out of 14 days, and three quarters of their wages, in a hotel on their return from work overseas. I received no clear answer. I asked again in March, and received no clear answer.
As travel restrictions ease, is the First Minister now in a position to give our key energy workers the review that they so desperately crave, and at least permit those essential workers to isolate at home?
We will continue to keep all such matters under review. Earlier in FMQs, we heard perfectly legitimate questioning and criticism of the decisions that we took at an early stage, and suggestions that such decisions might not have been cautious enough. First and foremost, we need to make sure that we are protecting people as much as possible against the spread of the virus. That is particularly important when it comes to international travel, because, right now, the key risk of international travel is the importation of new variants. The issues that Liam Kerr mentioned are difficult for anybody who is having to quarantine in a hotel; however, public safety and public health are paramount here, and I hope that the Tories would accept that.
As with last week, I have been unable to call all the supplementary questions that I would prefer to. Therefore, I intend to discuss that with business managers and to look at ways in which I can ensure that more members are able to participate in FMQs.12:51 Meeting suspended.
14:00 On resuming—